India Arie was born in 1975 in Detroit and moved to Atlanta when she was 13 years old. After high school, her mother encouraged her to learn and play the guitar. She rose to popularity early in the 2000s with her song “Video” on the album Acoustic Soul.
Although this may be one of her more recognizable moments, one of her more brilliant (and there is sooo much brilliance #swoon) is the song called “Back to the Middle” or “Come Back“. (I’ve embedded a live performance but the hyperlinks include a video with lyrics and the genius lyrics).
Raul Midon is a baaad, baaaad man.
“She is, twenty five, spent over half of her life
So afraid to speak her mind, it’s such a shame
Cause what a brilliant mind she has
And now she’s been introduced toconfidence She doesn’t see, that she is bordering on arrogance When will she learn, to come back to the middle
He is, a young black man, grew up without his father
And now it falls into his hands, to protect his mother
Cause if he doesn’t, well then who will, his older brother lives in fear
Of everything, especially, trying to fill his father’s shoes
Respectively, they go to extremes, of masculine and feminine
Chasing dreams, but they keep on falling
Cause they don’t know no balance
When will they learn, to come back to the middle.”
Aristotle is a philosopher and scientist born in Ancient Greece. As a teenager he joined Plato’s school in Athens and remained there for over twenty years. He literally wrote about EVERYTHING from math and science to government, politics, theology, and linguistics.
One of the topics he covers extensively in his series of smalls books called Niomachean Ethics, is virtue and the specific qualities and nature that virtue takes on.
In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect. By the intermediate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all men; by the intermediate relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little- and this is not one, nor the same for all.
Basically, Aristotle and India are saying the same thing! Come back to the middle!
…virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate. I mean moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate.
Basically, the homie Aristotle is saying to avoid the excess and the deficiency of any and all traits associated with virtue. The perfect example is confidence. The one that India uses in her song: “And now she’s been introduced to confidence. She doesn’t see, that she is bordering on arrogance. When will she learn, to come back to the middle.” We all know that no only is arrogance a dangerous trait to have in certain situations, but it does not work well in social situations or contribute overall to the goal of happiness. Arrogance can be confusing and stunting. Conversely, self-consciousness and insecurity can be just as debilitating and limiting. There has to be an intermediate. A median. Or, as some refer to it, the Golden Mean.
Another example might be Bravery versus Fear. Soldiers that are too brave are hazards to their units. Take Leigh the Soldier for example. She would be reckless and run into battle without all the details, endangering the people around them. Leigh’s intentions may be the best, but her bravado is not taking on the context of virtuousness. I think Aristotle and India might be like “Aye, slow down, find the middle Leigh.”
On the flipside you have Tom. Tommy is afraid of his own shadow. He would be a terrible soldier. And it is obvious why his fear would not be considered virtuous. It is a hindrance to his personal growth and to the safety of his unit.
I have no idea whether or not India is all up on her Aristotelian Ethics. But these ideas of moderation and intermediacy in virtue repeat throughout history from Ancient Greece all the way to 2005.
As we reflect on the lessons we teach our youth, and things that we do on a daily basis for ourselves, I think that it is important to acknowledge areas of excess as well as areas of deficiency.
Like India said, family structures and social projections have led us to increased binaries in everything including gender: “Respectively they go through extremes of masculine and feminine.” If the nature of virtue is in the middle (the intermediate) then maybe we need to challenge things or constructions that we consider in the binary (there is either A or B). If it is feminine to be sweet, patient, and committed while it is masculine to be brave, ambitious, and just then would it not be best to live in the intermediacy of these ideas of feminine and masculine? (I’m not suggesting we all wear gender neutral clothing. Just embrace a set of gender neutral virtues.)
Would not the most virtuous man and woman be the ones who find the right “golden mean” for them between all virtues? I think this line of question challenges hypermasculinty and hyperfemininity as relevant and useful structures for society. I know that gender presents numerous differences in a variety of areas from psychology to biology. However, the emphasis on the binary nature of gender is very convenient for divide/conquer tactics sociologically and for selling baby shit.
I don’t want to dive too much into gender. However, the overwhelming reliance on binaries in all walks of life: Democratic/Republican, Liberal/Conservative, Northerner/Southerner, Gay/Straight, Different/Normal, American/Non-American.
What we might all might be sorely lacking is some good ole fashion training in virtue and the golden mean. We need to get back to the middle folks.
So let’s learn. Let’s build. Let’s grow. You already know! (yeah I’m gonna let that wack rhyme remain. Lol. #JudgeFreeZone)
W.E.B. DuBois is one of my FAVORITE people to read. He can be tricky but once you understand his meaning it is so poignant.
DuBois worked as a professor at Atlanta University and wrote an essay called Of the Wings of Atalanta about the ATL and the industrial age after the Civil War (Learn more about his years in Georgia here):
“.. they of Atlanta turned resolutely toward the future; and that future held aloft vistas of purple and gold: — Atlanta, Queen of the cotton kingdom; Atlanta, Gateway to the Land of the Sun; Atlanta, the new Lachesis, spinner of web and woof for the world. So the city crowned her hundred hills with factories, and stored her shops with cunning handiwork, and stretched long iron ways to greet the busy Mercury in his coming. And the Nation talked of her striving.”
Translation: In the early 1900s Atlanta is looking to catch up with the cities in the North. The future held visions of purple & gold: Fame & money. So Atlanta began to shift from it’s roll as a train depot for the cotton industry and to spin its own new destiny by building factories, encouraging entrepreneurship, and building highways. The Nation took note but DuBois recognized that this industrial progress might be at the expensive of the deeper values of education. (To read the essay click here).
The Story of Free-Spirited Atalanta:
Throughout the essay DuBois relates Atlanta, Georgia to the stories of Atalanta in Greek mythology.
Atalanta was a badass that was raised by bears & hunters until she was old enough to travel and participate in the King’s hunt. She was a spectacle and one of the strongest hunters and soon became famous. Legend has it that all the men in Greece wanted to marry her, including the King, but she refused. When the men would not leave her alone she decided to hold an athletic event for her hand in marriage.
Major Key: If Atalanta beat all of her suitors, they would all be put to death, leaving her in eternal peace.
Of course there had to be a man that just COULD NOT take his butt whooping and consequent death without cheating.
Enter Meilanion. Of course, he is a super average dude, doing average dude things but he feels that he should be entitled to Atalanta’s hand in marriage. So he devises a scheme.
Meilanion brings three golden apples to the race. These apples were flashy and spectacular, nothing like what Atalanta had ever seen in her life growing up as a huntress. When Atalanta starts to pull ahead in the race, Meilanion throws out the apples to distract her.
He ends up beating her and she becomes his wife. They move far away and live happily together for years and years.
DuBois is relating Atlanta to Atalanta partially because of her name (DuBois is a poet) but also because of her potential. She had to compromise herself and her goals in pursuit of these golden apples.
In this reflection, regardless of whether Atalanta is happy, she has sacrificed her goal (to win the race) in exchange for flashy distractions and a trickster.
DuBois is warning the city of Atlanta and its people not to get to caught up in the flashy improvements that buildings and factories were bringing. He is drawing attention to the materialism that is overtaking the New South as it rapidly left behind its humble agricultural origins.
The equivalent of golden apples today can best be described by Atlanta artist 2 Chainz (yes, two gold chains ironically):
“They ask me what I do and who I do it for
And how I come up with this shit up in the studio
All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho
All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho
When I die, bury me inside that Gucci store
When I die, bury me inside that Louis store
All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho
All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho”**
2 Chainz was born Tauheed Epps in College Park, GA (he has a very well referenced Wikipedia page and personal website). He dropped his debut album featuring “Birthday Song” in August 2012.
I love the song when I’m in the right mood. It is a pertinent parallel between reality and materialism in America today. The strive for economic freedom in defiance of systemic challenges is simply articulated: Bury me in the Gucci store because I can afford it.
When DuBois penned his essay Of the Wings of Atalanta the majority of the black population in and around Atlanta was still living or trying to escape abject poverty brought on by agricultural dependence.
114 years later, a young black man from College Park (less than 10 miles from DuBois’ former Atlanta University office) is asserting his individual economic freedom to a catchy baseline that many of us can bounce our heads to.
But DuBois’ guidance is ever more pertinent as we collect our individual golden apples (or chains, whichever you prefer).
What if the Negro people be wooed from a strife of righteousness, from a love of knowing, to regard dollars as the be-all and end-all of life?
“Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretence and ostentation.”
“For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged, — wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism [sharecropping]; wealth to raise the [poor white people]; wealth to employ the black [poor], and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.
Not only is this true in the world Atlanta typifies, but it is threatening to be true in the world beneath and beyond that world,– the Black World beyond the Veil. Today it makes little difference to Atlanta, to the South, what the Negro thinks or dreams or wills… yet when he does come to think and will and do for himself,– and let no man dream that day will never come,– then the part he plays will not be one of sudden learning, but words and thoughts he has been taught to lisp in his race-childhood.”
Get to the money, money make the world go round.
Get to the money, turn your world upside down.
Now that we are getting to the money, maybe we have time to pause and think about DuBois’ legacy & insight. We can all bounce and enjoy the rhythm and the beat. But do not get too distracted by shining gold chains. (Although if you did you wouldn’t be in bad company. Lol. #Atalanta)
We have goals to achieve.
For our children and for each other. Peace Up.
**Please read more about the misogyny and objectification of women in the lyrics of 2 Chainz “Birthday Song” written within a year of the song’s release and about the activists involved with this critique.
Some pictures are linked to sources and information.
Update: This song was suggested to me by a reader named Jess Colossal representing Philly! Joey
Sometimes I speak and I feel like it ain’t my words
Like I’m just a vessel channeling inside this universe
I feel my ancestors unrested inside of me
It’s like they want me to shoot my chance in changing society
But how do I go about it? Tell me where I start?
My destiny rerouted when I chose to follow heart
You told to follow suit, but tell me what it do for you?
Except weigh you down, now you trapped inside the cubicle they built for us
The first step into change is to take notice
Realize the real games that they tried to show us
300 plus years of them cold shoulders
Yet 300 million of us still got no focus
Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier
Obama just wasn’t enough, I just need some more closure
And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over
Let’s face facts ’cause we know what’s the real motives
Joey Bada$$– Land of the Freee
Before you read the post, go ahead and scroll to the end of the page and start the Nas video. I hope that the truth behind Attica makes him and a lot of other rap artists more relatable, relevant, and impactful.
If I Ruled the World
Trickin’ six digits on kicks and still holdin’
Trips to Paris, I civilized every savage
Gimme one shot I turn trife life to lavish Political prisoner set free, stress free
No work release purple M3’s and jet skis
Feel the wind breeze in West Indies I’d make Coretta Scott-King mayor o’the cities and reverse themes to Willies
It sounds foul but every girl I meet would go downtown I’d open every cell in Attica send em to Africa
If I ruled the world, imagine that I’d free all my sons, I love ’em love ’em baby Black diamonds and pearls
Could it be, if you could be mine we’d both shine
If I ruled the world
Still livin’ for today, in these last days and times
–NAS– (June 1996)
(right to left: Rockefeller; Nixon; Hoover; and Mancusi, the prison warden)
I remixed an image from the Attica prison uprising which is featured in the book, Blood in the Water, by Heather Ann Thompson out of the University of Michigan. In the book she uncovers a large state department cover-up of a massacre that killed 39 men. Over 1,000 prisoners had taken part in a protest of opportunity to improve their basic living conditions and humanity. Most of the prisoners were from heavily policed inner cities like Harlem, or Brooklyn. Others were transfers from other overcrowded and unkempt prisons. After the prisoners issued a list of demands including steady parole board reviews, edible food, reliable healthcare, and more frequent showers; President Nixon communicated with then Governor of New York, Rockefeller, that he wanted the ‘black problem’ taken care of.
Rockefeller allowed state troopers, policemen, and prison guards from all surrounding counties enter a yard of 1300 unarmed multiracial prisoners and hostages with guns blazing. After the initial massacre, the state continued to participate in the routine intimidation and retaliation against prisoners. State and prison officials even go so far as to inform the public falsely that the prisoners are removing the genitals of white men and eating them. In reality, the prisoners are being subjected to the worst torture imaginable. My ReMix puts the people responsible for the continuance of that brutality in the place that history will cast them, as the real monsters.
Mass incarceration is the largest human rights problem in the 21st century. As a teenager, jamming to my Walkman, I never understood why Nas would free the people in Attica other than the fact that they had skin like me. I never fully appreciated his reference to french/white savages and the context he was gathering his knowledge. I just knew that he was cool and I wanted to fit in and be cool too.
As an adult I fully understand his masterful play on words and why he is one of the best rappers and social commentators of all-time. Nas puts words to the horror that is the daily life of incarcerated men and women while still giving them love and hope. He is continuing some of the oldest traditions of African oration.
Digital Media gives me an avenue to bring together these intersections of pop culture & history; books & rap. It is hard to truly appreciate the artistry behind black culture without fully appreciating black history and the black experience. Maybe digital media can serve as a bridge between academia and the people buying the music. Or maybe it will just serve as a bridge for me. All of the images come with the express consent of the author. I met her and she assured me that all images that she and her publicist have released are fully intended for re-use by the public because they are pictures taken by the State during the retaking of the prison and the negotiation.
Dedicated to: LD Barkley, 21, dead; in prison at Attica for driving without a license. And for being black and poor. I hope that you are living in a place where “you can smoke in the street without police harassment.” To the many more that I cannot name here and now, I pray for you always… “If I ruled the world….”
And I just need a place to breathe. A place to exhale.
Those history books and classes you had….
I am looking for somewhere to bring together all of things that matter to me; that may seem to be contradictory to many. I am an avid reader, music enthusiast, sports fanatic, and freelance historian.
I am an American. And while I do not believe in American exceptionalism; I believe that the conditions people of color have been able to transcend in this country are exceptional.
But the push cannot stop. We can’t become complacent and believe that the system now serves us because we have black faces in high faces. We must PERSIST.
For our children. For our futures. For our livelihoods. For our lives.
So this is the history of some of the strongest people in the world told through a lens that classrooms have yet to adapt.
Whether you’re reading this from a beautiful MacBook overlooking waves in Hawaii; a small apartment in a high rise in Chicago; your cell phone on the commute from the suburbs of Long Island; or at bar while you wait out Metro Atlanta traffic… Know that we are all connected in ways that very powerful people do not want us to realize.
Without the struggles that have brought our community together we would not be here. We have to keep fighting, keep loving, keep laughing, and keep learning.
We must live.
I am writing this so that we can be aware of ourselves as a community. So that we can all come to the agreement that there is nothing better in the world than to be of African blood, with an extraordinary American swag.